Jackson had not practiced or played since Nov. 12. He was arrested in the wee hours of that morning, along with fellow freshmen Nu'keese Richardson and Mike Edwards, in connection with an incident that occurred outside a campus-area convenience store. A pellet gun allegedly was used by one of the players in an attempt to rob two men in the convenience store parking lot.
Knoxville prosecutors will go forward with charges against Richardson and Edwards but announced Monday that the charges against Jackson are being dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Kiffin opened his Tuesday news conference by addressing the situation.
"As I've said before, we wanted to take our time to get all the information regarding this situation," he said. "These were very serious allegations, and we had to make sure we handled this properly. After an extensive and thorough investigation by the Knoxville Police Department and the District Attorney's office, they have cleared Janzen of any wrongdoing and determined he had no prior knowledge of this incident. Janzen will join team activities today.
"We hold our student-athletes to an extremely high standard, on and off the field. Janzen has seen the effect personal decisions had on his former teammates and he is excited to rejoin our team activities."
Later, when asked if Jackson is ready to play after his two-week absence from practice, Kiffin deadpanned, "He's very rested."
Describing Jackson as "a great player," the coach went on to note that "we expect him to have a really good week of practice and he'll contribute for special teams, as well."
Asked if Jackson will start vs. the Wildcats, Kiffin replied, "Yes."
Jackson started at free safety in Games 2 through 8, then sat out Game 9 against Memphis on a disciplinary suspension. Missing Games 10 and 11 while the Nov. 12 robbery attempt was investigated means he hasn't played in three weeks. Still, Kiffin believes the talented rookie will be up to speed by Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Janzen is a very intelligent football player," Kiffin said. "You can tell by the way he plays; he's always around the football ... knows where it's going. He's had a few weeks off, so he'll have to get back in the rhythm of practice and the rhythm of the game but I expect him to play really well. Because he does take football so seriously and studies it so much, I don't think there's going to be a drop-off."
Asked Jackson's reaction to his reinstatement, Kiffin replied: "I think he's very relieved. This has been very difficult for him. As I just said, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and any knowledge at all of this situation, so part of you feels bad for him in a way because he's had to go through this. He and his family have had to go through being on SportsCenter - his name tagged with this incident, missing the last two games because of this.
"I know he's excited to be back, and he's ready to go."
Kiffin dismissed Richardson and Edwards four days after their arrest but generally declined comment on Jackson's situation until today. Admitting that he "took a long time" evaluating the matter, Kiffin added: "I did not want to jump to any conclusions. I wanted to make sure the proper people were able to evaluate the situation and see exactly what happened."
Once prosecutors dropped the charges against Jackson, Kiffin felt his next step was obvious.
"To me, it's a pretty easy decision," he said. "If someone's cleared of any wrongdoing by your police department and district attorney and your student affairs, I don't know how you punish somebody for that."
The coach said Richardson and Edwards were dismissed from school late last week and are no longer allowed on campus.
Jackson established himself as a budding star in Tennessee's first eight games, recording 33 tackles, 3 pass breakups, 3 passes defended, a fumble forced and an eight-yard fumble return. The three games he missed saw the Vols surrender four touchdowns to Memphis, give up season highs in yards (492) and points (42) against Ole Miss and allow a lame Vanderbilt offense to muster 16 points, its season high in SEC play.
Kiffin conceded that Jackson's return "does a ton for us, defense and special teams.... It's very obvious when you look at the stats. When he's not played for us, we've played the worst we played on defense all season long."
Senior defensive tackle Wes Brown agreed that Jackson's return is "a great boost for us," adding: "We're welcoming him back with open arms. He's one of our teammates, one of our brothers.... That's in the past and we're looking forward."
With Tennessee's defense riddled by injuries in recent weeks, Jackson just might be the difference between victory and defeat Saturday in Lexington.
"He's not your typical freshman," Brown said. "He's an outstanding player. You see him in practice making plays, and it goes over into the games. We certainly missed him. We hate what happened but he's back with us. We welcome him back with open arms, and can't wait to see him back out on the practice field."